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Milwaukee homeless tent city

Members of the homeless community gather in a makeshift tent city under the Interstate 794 freeway in downtown Milwaukee earlier this month. Thousands of Wisconsinites, from Superior to Beloit and La Crosse to Milwaukee, are homeless, spending nights in shelters, outside, in vehicles and motels, and doubled up with others.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers is calling on the Legislature’s budget committee to bypass the legislative process and release funding for homelessness initiatives after the Senate declined to approve the money in its last session of the year.

On Thursday, Evers sent a letter to the budget committee’s leaders, Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, and Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, requesting the committee meet to approve more than $3 million in annual funding for several programs meant to curb homelessness.

The Joint Finance Committee could release the budget money allocated for homeless initiatives at any time, but has not done so, instead waiting for the full Legislature to authorize the release of the money.

“As snow has fallen and temperatures have continued to drop, my concern has only grown,” Evers said in the letter.

In June, the Assembly passed a package of eight homelessness bills based on recommendations from the Interagency Council on Homelessness, which was formed under former Gov. Scott Walker’s administration.

But the bills have stalled after the state Senate declined to take them up last week, in its last session of the year. The next chance for the Senate to pass the legislation would likely be mid-January, prompting concern from advocates for the homeless who say the consequences for Wisconsin’s homeless population could be dire as the cold weather months approach.

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Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, a proponent of the homelessness bills, said he has relayed to senators the importance of the legislation and hopes they will pass the bills after the first of the year.

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The bills the state Assembly passed would:

  • Provide short-term grants or loans to defray housing costs.
  • Help struggling people find housing.
  • Create more beds at emergency shelters.
  • Pay for skills training to escape homelessness.
  • Assist landlords with repairs to low-cost housing.
  • Expand grants for housing and related services.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, has declined to say why he wouldn’t put the homelessness package to a vote. The inaction could be due to skepticism from some fiscally conservative senators who are cautious about authorizing any new spending and want to ensure nonprofits receiving the funds use them responsibly.

Last January, more than 4,500 people were considered homeless in Wisconsin, with 295 of those people being unsheltered, according to the governor’s office.

A Nygren spokesman didn’t respond to a request seeking comment.

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